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The Fairy Church in the Woods
Ellen Fenlon ~ The Saalfiield Publishing Company, 1962
This is one of a series of four stapled booklets, three of which — Signs of the Fairies, The Fairy Church in the Woods, A Woodland Circus — my mother gave to me when I was 9 or 10 and I absolutely cherished (hence I still have them), and the fourth, Little Birds in a Nest, which my husband procured for me recently on eBay when I rediscovered them. I love all four but choose to focus on this one since it’s my daughter’s favorite.
The series (which sold for 29¢ apiece — can you imagine buying anything for 29¢ these days, let alone something so awesome?) was written and photographed by one Ellen Fenlon, a native of Akron, Ohio, according to the biographical note on the back page, which, in an age before stalkers and identity theft, helpfully includes her home address:
She is helping to save the woods from being cut down so that all the little animals and plants won’t be chased out of their homes. That way your children and grandchildren will have a place where they can go visit them.
Ellen Fenlon, whoever she was (is?), had a gift for making the mundane magical. She invites us into her world as if we already know everyone in it. Each book begins with an unidentified first person narrator (Fenlon, presumably) striking out into the woods with a few children:
Emily, Toby, and I went for a walk in a deep green woods. We saw a tall spruce tree.
Toby said, “Why, you know, that looks like a church steeple.”
And Emily said, “Let’s go to the bottom of that tree-steeple and see if we can find a fairy church.”
The fairy church is the raised, moss-covered roots of a spruce tree, something you might easily pass on a hike without noticing, but the narrator and the children don’t just notice it, they conjure a world within it, where lichens are doormats, mushrooms are lamps, fungi are seats for deacons, star moss are carpets, a calopogan orchid is a fairy throne, a twinleaf seed pod is a communion cup, and Jack delivers a sermon from his Pulpit. Fenlon’s strikingly surreal but not at all literal photographs make the story they spin out of the details utterly convincing.
I think most kids already see the natural world this way — every pine needle, clump of moss is an occasion for amazement and wonder and storytelling— or at least they have the capacity to do so until they get lazy, corrupted by too much media. I’m not being high and mighty here — I’ve got a plasma TV, three Macs and two kids hooked on “The Little Einsteins.” But my older daughter treats these books with great reverence, as if they contain Important Secrets, and I play this up by keeping them on a high shelf in my office. Thank you Ms. Fenlon, for your remarkable imagination, and here’s hoping the woodlands of Akron, Ohio, have not all fallen victim to sprawling shopping centers and subdivisions.